How can you lose weight sitting in front of a computer keyboard?
Some are trying it, through on-line support groups, the latest refuge of ever-dieting Americans.
Although the idea sounds paradoxical at first -- sitting at a computer is part of the sedentary lifestyle that got us into this shape to begin with -- on-line services offer people a chance to share helpful information and cheer each other on.
No weigh-ins, no lectures, no specially prepared meals. Instead, there are bulletin boards, where participants post queries ("Isn't there some way to lose 40 pounds really fast?"), tell success stories, and warn others of pitfalls.
In America Online's bulletin board, found in its lifestyle section, people often advertise for buddies willing to communicate via e-mail about ongoing struggles with weight and exercise.
"It's a very safe way to tell someone relatively personal things," says Louisa Hart, who runs a public relations business out of her Bethesda home. "It's like talking to someone you meet on an airplane. There's that same sense you can bail out."
Ms. Hart posted a request for a dieting pen pal earlier this year and received five responses. She selected one to correspond with, and has found the electronic relationship quite satisfying.
The weekly notes, while just one part of a weight-loss plan that includes Weight Watchers and walking, keep her spirits up as she tries to lose 40 pounds.
"When push comes to shove, it's just you against the refrigerator," she says. "This is an enhancement. I don't think it's a replacement for other things. All I can say is that it's working for me."
Certainly, Weight Watchers International is not worried about losing business to virtual support groups.
Spokeswoman Linda Carilli says: "How many people are on the Internet? We have in our meetings on a weekly basis up to 600,000 people. It's a great buddy system. But you cannot duplicate the experience of being in a meeting room."
To answer Ms. Carilli's rhetorical question, at least 8 million people are estimated to have access to the Internet, although only a small percentage go through services such as America Online. As for the meeting room experience -- America Online and other providers often sponsor "chat rooms," in which participants can converse.
But this disembodied experience is markedly different from speaking face to face.
Despite the lack of physical contact, plenty of people are shedding pounds with the help of on-line support groups.
Marjie Adams of Pittsburgh gained 40 pounds after surgery last year. She knew how to calculate the fat grams in a cupcake and what she should be doing to lose weight, but just couldn't get motivated.
On-line, she has found the support she needs to examine the psychological aspect of her dieting dilemma.
"I needed something more, something a little more personal," she says. "I'm pretty much satisfied with my life, except from the neck down."
But what about the reinforcement one receives when others see the pounds falling off? When she starts to lose weight, her computer friend won't know.
"You can still get that kind of support. The person I'm corresponding with has lost 16 pounds," she says. "I can imagine that in my mind, and I think that's fabulous and I congratulate her."
There are pitfalls to relying exclusively on the information provided on-line. While America Online monitors its bulletin boards, in part to keep would-be advertisers at bay, misinformation can flourish. And there's no easy way to check the credentials of a self-proclaimed expert.
Mike West, of Oceanside, Calif., prowls the health-related bulletin boards in America Online, looking for postings he considers misleading. Under the user name MedXer, he offers advice on fitness programs.
"I'm totally against the 'fun' idea when it comes to exercise," he admits. "People have to realize it's hard work."
A former worker at a clinic for people with neck and back problems, Mr. West cautions that on-line comments take on greater credibility, simply because they are written down. He also has noted that a lot of people are still looking for miracle cures.
"There are people talking about [unsafe] medication or pills. That mentality is there," he says. "But most people are just looking for answers."
On America Online, the discussions on diet, nutrition and exercise are found by choosing Clubs & Interest from the main menu, then moving on to the Better Health and Medical Forum. Once there, click on the question mark icon (the Message Center).
Weight loss and fitness information appears among the topics in the Running, Exercise and Fitness forum.